By Panagiota Katsaveli,
Whilst growing up I distinctly remember spending endless hours watching my favorite cartoons, mainly my favorite Disney movies with all the well-known princesses. Most children, especially girls, are raised with these animations as their role models aspiring that one day they will become like them. However, animated films and Disney have shaped many of the stereotypes regarding gender roles without us even realizing it. The fact that they are targeted at young children has come as a reassurance to parents and adults about their appropriateness and influence on their children, but it is time to have a look at them with a critical eye!
Princesses have been some of Disney’s most famous heroines for decades and they have surely evolved in the passage of time. The most classical princess tales remain stories with embedded stereotypes about gender roles and the idea of the woman who needs a man to save her. Snow White is a woman who possesses extreme beauty and thus becomes the subject of jealousy by other women. Besides her beauty, she is presented as the ideal housewife as proven by the way she takes care of the Seven Dwarfs. Similarly, Cinderella also features these virtues; she can perform every house chore and has admirable external characteristics which can capture a man’s attention. Sleeping Beauty is a beautiful woman who manages to win the love of a prince solely by her appearance and good looks. All these examples of Disney Princesses with which all little girls grow up constitute a stereotypical representation of the sexes and create a false image of the ideals that matter the most. The perception that appearance and being a good housewife are essential features to capture and win a man’s attention and love is passed on to little girls who sequentially try to resemble them. Moreover, the importance of consent regarding sexual relationships is utterly neglected since both Sleeping Beauty and Snow White are asleep when their prince kisses them. Lastly, all of these women are miserable and trapped in difficult situations when a man arrives to save them thus providing them a happy life; women are only saved by the help of a male figure and not using their power to break free.
As time passed and society progressed, Disney followed suit and decided to expand showing more dynamic female protagonists. In the movie “Beauty and the Beast”, Belle is a female character who is interested in reading and getting an education, signalling an important step towards the right direction. Not only did she have a voice and opinion of her own, but she was also the one to save the Prince from his curse and she decided to stay with him by her own free will. What is more, even though Disney has mainly abided to the norm of portraying white female characters, the company has started showing more diversity in their princesses. Jasmine was an Arab princess from the East who was powerful, smart and could express her opinion on important matters. Pocahontas was a different kind of princess in general, providing even greater diversity to the franchise; she was the Native American daughter of the leader of her tribe placing her family and tribe above love since that is what she valued the most. These stories kept the element of love and beauty in the centre, but they showed that women do not have to depend on male support, they have other qualities besides doing chores and being objects of admiration and most importantly they came from different cultural backgrounds giving little girls over the world the opportunity to identify themselves with them.
Since the beginning of the Princesses’ franchise, Disney has taken several steps towards the right direction, mainly in the 2010s decade. Rapunzel was the first fundamental change for female representation; she was a rebel, a powerful girl who always found clever ways to handle the situation and whose only desire was to acquire experiences, without the slightest thought about marriage. She was not saved by a man and their relationship was based on love and equality, while she became a queen and ruled her kingdom all by herself. Later, the movie “Brave” was released with its main character Merida, being Rapunzel’s great successor. Merida is a modern girl bound by royal traditions. Her parents desire an arranged marriage, but she wants to control the course of her life, so this skilled archer defies the social norm of her royal position; she is her own savior and no romantic interest needs to come to her rescue. “Frozen” was another one of Disney’s greatest achievements since the female lead is promoted from a princess to queen and the importance of sisterly love is praised. It is the first time the sentence “You can’t marry a man you just met” is heard in a Disney movie as well as the time that the female protagonist is saved by the help and love of her sister, another equally strong and unique individual -no man is once again needed to save them. Lastly, Moana is a strong leader of her people who managed to save Te Fiti and bring prosperity to her tribe and simultaneously enhances diversity being another non-white western idol.
Besides Disney princesses, different animated movies and cartoon series filled our childhood and presented important feminist and empowering messages for young women. The “Powerpuff Girls” are the epitome of the saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” The kindergartens by day and clever superheroines by night are three small young girls by the names Buttercup, Bubbles and Blossom who manage to transform into powerful superheroines saving their city, Townsville, while maintaining their girly and adorable side. As the show’s head writer said, their goal was to disregard gender roles and stereotypes all together and showcase three distinct strong personalities that prove there is not a single definition for feminine behavior. These girls prove that anything is possible, and every girl is accepted and can become a hero. Why couldn’t they, anyway? The animated series “Totally Spies” can be characterized as a teenage version of the “Powerpuff Girls”. Alex, Sam and Clover are three agents ready to defeat evil keeping their feminine side alive and even using patriarchal symbols and expectations of women as weapons; for example, a lipstick is turned into laser. “Kim Possible”, a Disney cartoon series, broke a number of stereotypes; not only did she deflect the idea that cheerleaders are beautiful and cheerful individuals, but also she was the main character, savor and spy having her male love interest as a sidekick.
While it is crucial to remember that the main goal of Disney movies and cartoon animations of all kinds is to entertain young children and people of all ages, the hidden messages in them can have long-lasting effects in our behavior. Looking at these productions with a critical eye and not simply absorbing their ideas is the safest bet when we grow up in order to make sure that we correctly understand what we have been exposed to and keep the information that characterizes us as people. This does not obviously mean that we need to stop watching Disney movies; they will always be part of our childhood and probably for future generations as well!
- SheThePeople, Here’s How Feminism Evolved Through Animated Films. Available here.
- Onedio, The evolution of female characters that popular culture has offered to girls. Available here.